This is the true story of a working mom—with eight kids and a ninth on the way—whose journey began in 1994 on a little reality show called The Real World: San Francisco. We first met Rachel Campos-Duffy, now 47, as the outspoken and slightly rebellious housemate, making waves with her staunch Republican views. We saw her life path unfold when she met her husband Sean Duffy (of the Real World: Boston cast) while appearing on Road Rules: All-Stars in 1998—they’ve been married for 20 years, supporting each other through many career twists and turns. The most notable, however, came in 2011 when Sean was elected to Congress, requiring him to leave their home in Wisconsin to work in D.C. several days a week. Rachel didn’t allow that huge schedule shift affect her own career ambitions, even with a growing family to manage—her kids range in age from 3 to 19. She hosts Moms on Fox Nation and recently wrote a children’s book called Paloma Wants to be Lady Freedom (with the help of daughters Paloma and Lucia).
In May, Rachel and Rep. Duffy revealed they were expecting their ninth child, so it was surprising when he announced in August that he was stepping down from Congress. The catalyst: news that their baby girl, due in October, will be born with developmental challenges and two holes in her heart, requiring open heart surgery. We talked with Rachel about how Sean’s decision and having a ninth child with health concerns will affect her own career, the lessons motherhood has taught her and how she doesn’t let outside opinions bother her—because, really, with eight kids, do you think she has the time?
On Her Husband Stepping Down From Congress
“People don’t understand how demanding that congressional schedule is. Politicians get a bum rap, but their schedule is absolutely intense and requires two full-time schedulers to manage it. That’s how much goes on, how much they travel and how intense the meetings are. When we got the news about the baby, we’d already been getting other signs that our bandwidth was getting tight. We asked ourselves, ‘How can we create more space for our family?’ It was a hard decision because my husband adores his job and he’s really good at it. If I made a list of all of his strengths and weaknesses and there was an equation that came out with the perfect job for him, it would say ‘Congressman.’ But within the last year he was not feeling good about missing out on stuff at home, and he wanted to do something that would allow him to be more present. This became the final straw. It was a sign from God that we need to find a different way to do this. He hopes that he can still have a platform and a voice because he loves politics, loves policy and believes we’re in a critical political phase for the country. But he’s going to find a different way to be involved without it being so time-consuming and taxing on the family. It’s not always possible for people to switch careers and make these adjustments. In my husband’s case, he had some mentors, such as Speaker Paul Ryan, who did the same thing. Because it is such a grueling schedule, I would say that every six to eight months, most congressional families are reassessing, reevaluating and saying, ‘Is this working for us?’ It’s such an honor to serve, but in the end, our most important responsibility is to our families. For a long time, it did work for us, but we kept having kids and that complicated things. [Stepping down] is a tough choice, but it’s reflective of the generation we’re living in.”
On the Future of Her Own Career
“I’ll obviously have to take time off, but I have no worries that Fox will allow me to take as much time as I need. I anticipate that I will still be able to work from Wisconsin. It’s an amazing thing that I live in rural America and bring that perspective to a national television audience. I get a lot of love in Wisconsin because people are so happy that there’s a mom with their point of view and on television to give that point of view. There are other things that I do, such as speaking engagements that I think will take a backseat, but hopefully my husband will find something that makes up the [financial] difference. I am eternally grateful because Fox has been the most amazing, mommy-friendly company I could ever dream of. It’s literally a dream job. When I’m home, I’ll probably do between two to four hits (tapings) a week. The studio is about five minutes away. It takes much longer to shower and get my hair and makeup done than it does to do the hits. I come out to New York once or twice a month and I pack in a ton of stuff because they work around my schedule, which is an amazing blessing. The rest of the time I’m home. This is my third pregnancy since I’ve been working at Fox and I’ve never had anyone make me feel bad about it. Everyone embraces it.”
On Why Stepping Away Doesn’t Take You Out of the Game
“I think for Sean to step back, do something different and maybe in a different time he might go, ‘You know what? I’m ready to step back in’ or maybe feel like, ‘I like being out.’ We put pressure on this idea that you can’t. This is something I’ve preached about with women. I give speeches on balancing family, work and your passions. I remember when Sheryl Sandberg told young women graduating from college to ‘put your foot on the gas pedal and don’t let go.’ I just thought, ‘God, that’s not the message that I would give.’ Good on her, but it’s not for me. I think life is more fluid and flexible. I see it more like we’re on a train and we live in this amazing time, for women and for families and for men, where you can jump off and jump back on. It’s not 1970; it’s not 1985. I think we can take those pauses in life and tend to the things that matter the most. There’s this idea that if you’re not ‘go, go, go, go’ that you’re missing something. Well, if we’re staying with the foot on the gas pedal, you’re missing something. If I jump off the train, I’m not going to be Barbara Walters—but I don’t want to be Barbara Walters. I have to look at what I want, what my values are and I have to be willing to let go. Sometimes when you let go, other things come in that you’d never have by holding on so tight. I say that with hesitation because I know my job at Fox has afforded me a platform and a flexibility that most women do not have. By no stretch do I compare that to other people who don’t have that opportunity. But I’ve had to make other sacrifices to get to the point where there’s a company willing to hire me and give me that flexibility. There’s a time and a place for everything and it’s so dynamic and personal. There’s no one size fits all. Life is about a constant, monthly, even weekly, reassessment and recalibration and working it through with your family and trying to figure it out. You also must be willing to take risks. Sean took a risk, but what’s fascinating is that we’re seeing more men starting to make these choices and feeling like it’s OK.”
On What She Wants Democrats to Know About Republicans and Vice Versa
“When my [Republican] husband was first elected, I was still nursing one of our kids. I went to orientation with him and I needed to nurse. That’s when I discovered that Nancy Pelosi had put in a nursing room during her time as Speaker. It was good for the members that were nursing and it was great for the spouses who were nursing too. It was my first experience of thinking, ‘There are things that we as humans and women need and need to support each other that go well beyond politics.’ I was very grateful and gave Nancy lots of kudos for making that happen. We ought to focus more on the things that unite us as humans and as Americans. Truthfully, it’s not going to start in Congress. It’s not going to start at the White House. It’s going to start in our homes.”
Her Advice to Working Moms Who Worry They Can’t Handle More Kids
“Having a ton of kids is not for everyone. The most important factor in deciding whether that’s for you is asking, ‘What’s my support system?’ I have a supportive partner who’s just as open to having a lot of kids and the chaos that comes with it—and that works for us. In some ways having more kids can be more complicated… The rules and intentions you have with one kid go out the window [with more]. In some ways it can be easier. They play with each other, so this whole playdate thing that people do? I don’t do it. I don’t have to. You learn as you get older and have more kids, a lot of the stuff that you thought was necessary or had to be done a certain way…you pare down the extra pressures because a lot of it is from what we think other people perceive about us. I used to feel bad if I couldn’t chaperone because I was always the chaperone or the Girl Scout leader with my first ones. I don’t let that bother me or worry about what other people think… Other kids will come over to our house and like being there. There’s a fun chaos in our house that I think other kids enjoy. It helps me get perspective on it rather than feeling like, ‘Are they all going to end up in therapy?’ One of the interesting things about having a big family in such a range is you’re able to improve your game as they get older. You do make mistakes with the first few and you get better at it. Another nice thing about having a lot of kids is that they don’t ask you to do as much volunteering at the school. They think I have enough on my hands! There’s things that fall through the cracks when you have that many kids, like music class for toddlers. Now, I’m like, ‘I’m too busy for that…’ I’m learning to do what’s right for me. Who cares that I bought cupcakes instead of making them? When you have a lot of kids, there’s no room to let it bother you.”
On the “Exit Interviews” She Gives Her Kids Before They Leave Home
“When my daughter graduated from high school and before she went to college, we were like, ‘Let’s keep this real, be 100% honest. What did we do well? What should we have done differently?’ It was insightful for us to hear what she thought we did good and what she thought we could improve on from her perspective. I was initially surprised by what we didn’t do well. When I registered the kids for say, soccer or dance, as soon as they didn’t show a great interest in it or didn’t want to go, I was like, ‘Sure!’ And that’s because it was more convenient for me. My husband wasn’t around as much and I think if he had been, maybe he would’ve been like, ‘No, he’s gotta push through.’ My daughter wished I would’ve been more aggressive and pushed them through even when they said they didn’t like it. I thought I was being the nice mom. But now we have a kid that’s in hockey, so we’re trying to nurture that better. For our ‘high mark,’ we have a cabin that’s tiny, but so cute on this lake that my husband grew up on in northern Wisconsin. I never had that growing up, but my husband’s parents are on that same lake. My daughter felt like the family time on the lake were her best and fondest memories. It was good to know that it was worth it, especially because at one point it was a financial strain to make it happen.”
On Returning to Their Reality TV Roots
“We never said to our kids, ‘No, you can’t watch The Real World’ but we never watched it or talked about it much, so the kids didn’t know much about it. Until my daughter found an episode online and then watched it all—my season, Sean’s season and the Road Rules season where we met. That was fun to her, but I was super annoyed at first because she would throw things back at us. I also thought it was so interesting because I would’ve liked to see what my mom was like at 22. I think she got a new perspective on us. We’ve been approached literally like 10 times about doing a reality show. We just know too much. We get how intense that is and what kind of toll that takes and I wouldn’t put my family through it. If we hadn’t done reality TV, then I bet we would’ve been suckered into it. We figured that so many end up divorced and for the ones that are just about the family, it’s stressful. There’s a huge strain having other people in your home. The house is my sanctuary and I can’t imagine bringing that in.”